By: Ashlee Wong, MA
When you look at yourself in the mirror, how do you describe what you see? How do you describe what you feel emotionally or spiritually? In my experience, common descriptions focus almost exclusively on our flaws. “I have too much cellulite.” “I have a big nose.” “I feel like a failure.” “I have wasted my life.” I have gathered many theories over the years which might explain why we all come to a similar experience regardless of factors including your ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or geographical location. No matter what the truth might be, there appears to be a universal experience that we are often far too critical of what we perceive to be our weakest attributes.
Whenever I hear a client or a friend speak with such disparaging words about themselves, my first instinct is to ask them “Would you say that to a friend?” This usually stops the laundry list of faults and failures as the person will often sheepishly look at me and confirm no, they would not speak this way to a friend. In fact, most will tell me if they were on my side of the conversation, they would try to build up their friend. They would give them words of encouragement or find alternative strengths that could offset the insecurities. Some even tell me, with understanding dawning before them, they already know what subsequent question is waiting for them. If we would encourage a friend struggling to recognize their worth or to at least stop punishing themselves for factors beyond their control, what stops us from doing the same for ourselves?
Unfortunately, the reason why we are our harshest critics isn’t a one-sized fits all kind of answer. There might be systemic reasons such as a society built on competition and comparisons. In such a culture, it might be understood that we are all searching for perfection which creates bitter disappointment when we realize we often fall short of this ambitious goal. It might be based on a work culture where strengths are less valued or even ignored in favor of areas of weakness in an effort to continue streamlining productivity which increases the overall functioning of the company. It could even be generational with many members of a family unable or unwilling to break a cycle of criticism. I may not be able to definitively answer why we fixate on negativity but what I can tell you are a few of my recommendations for slowly overcoming our fixation on our faults.
First and foremost, if it feels foreign to say positive things about yourself, take a page from the 2011 movie The Help. Spend a few minutes each morning while you brush your teeth or fix your hair repeating the following; “You is kind, You is smart, You is important.” Ideally, you would add to this as you get used to the exercise, but this is always a good backup in case we’re truly stumped or unable to think of anything else. I also highly encourage writing these affirmations on Post-its and leaving them around the house to find them when they are most necessary. Secondly, I like recommending daily reflection on three positive things for which you are grateful. It’s similar to repeating a mantra of your positive qualities but I think this also challenges a person to think of specific achievements from the previous 24 hours to further highlight that no matter what the day has brought, we can always find something to be happy about even if it’s as small as making a great lunch.
Written by: ASHLEE WONG, MA, Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist 103135. Supervised by Dr. Joselyn Josephine Ayala-Encalada Psy.D., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist 96987